Breaking down the matchups for Round 12 of the greatest rivalry in the history of professional sports ...
Point Guard: Rajon Rondo vs. Derek Fisher
The biggest edge for either team at any position. Fisher -- a heart and soul guy for the Lakers who will a couple of big shots in this series -- is past the point where he can defend a guard with the speed of Rondo. Russell Westbrook put up a 20-6-6 on Fisher in the first round of the playoffs, and Westbrook, while no slouch, would need to spend a couple of years with the 2000 U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team to get close to the speed and explosiveness of Rondo.
The real question, of course, is how much we'll actually see Fisher defending Rondo in this series. My best guess? Phil Jackson will give Fisher a chance on Rondo to start each game. But it'll be a short leash, because Jackson knows that when Rondo sets the tempo of a game it usually leads to a Celtics win. So you'll see four or five guys -- Fisher, Kobe, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, even Ron Artest -- taking a shot at slowing down Rondo. I can't imagine Jackson uses Kobe for more than a couple of minutes at a time on Rondo. Can't afford to wear Kobe out in a series that he'll almost certainly play north of 40 minutes a game.
Shooting Guard: Ray Allen vs. Kobe Bryant
Can I get a mulligan? I must've written that LeBron James was the "best basketball player on the planet" 100 times over the last six months. Could not have been more wrong. Why, again, does MVP voting not occur until after the playoffs? We're always told that players are ultimately judged by what they do or don't do in the postseason. But the MVP voting counts everything but that part of the year. Huh. Well, until LeBron carries a team to an NBA championship the title of Best Player in the World stays safely with the man who gave us the unforgettable rap album "Visions" in 2000. One only hopes that isn't the end of the Kobe-Tyra Banks writing collaboration. I really thought they were going to be a 21st century Elton John/Bernie Taupin.
I'm OK with the idea that there will never be another Michael Jordan, but Kobe is really, really close. He's even managed to change his game over the years the way MJ did. Remember Jordan post-comeback? The head above the rim stuff was long gone, replaced by fallaway jumpers and working his way to the free throw line. Well, that's Kobe in 2010. Sure, he breaks off a vintage dunk here and there, but the great majority of his damage is done 18-20 feet away from the basket. Not an easy transformation (ask Vince Carter or Dominique Wilkins) and only MJ and Kobe can claim to have been the league's best player at both stages.
You and I know that Kobe is going to get his 25-30 points a game in this series. How he gets there is what matters. Will it be easy (see the Phoenix and Utah box scores for examples) or will it be the 2008 finals redux? One thing is for sure: MVP or no MVP, Kobe is a good bet for the Nina Hartley Award as Ray Allen, Tony Allen, Pierce, Rondo and maybe even Michael Finley will be on Kobe at some point in this series. Again, he's going to get to 25 points a game somehow (he averaged 25.7 in the 2008 finals, and he was awful) but the Celtics are hoping it'll be after 30 shots, not 20.
An under-the-radar story is that this could be the last series Ray Allen ever plays for the Celtics (the trade deadline seem about 10 years ago). A free agent in less than a month, Allen has had a terrific three years in Boston. It might be a stretch, but if he could match his 2008 finals (22 3-pointers, a finals record) and Garnett struggles, you could make the case that he's had the better run in Boston. He's not Kobe Bryant, but of course the Celtics don't need him to be. They'd happily sign for 18 points a game, 25 minutes of honest defense on Bryant and 40 percent 3-point shooting. That would go a long way to No. 18.
Small Forward: Paul Pierce vs. Ron Artest
I thought Mike Gorman made a great point regarding this matchup when he was on The Big Show the other day. I'm paraphrasing, but his general thought was that Artest's defensive skills have eroded to a far greater extent than Pierce's offensive skills. Totally accurate, which is no shock when you consider that Gorman is one of the five best play-by-play men in Boston sports history (joining Ned Martin, Gil Santos, Fred Cusick and the guy that won the Sam Adams contest and verbally hijacked the Red Sox booth for an inning in 2004). But let's be fair: Artest had more space to fall. For a three or four-year period he was the best defensive player in the NBA. I don't think even the guy who has sat next to Mike Gorman for the last 30 years would suggest that Pierce was ever the best offensive player in the NBA. (OK, he might. How many Celtics would have to be out of this series for Tommy to pick the Lakers to win two games? At least Garnett, Pierce, Allen, Rondo, Perkins and Big Baby, I would think.)
Yes, Artest is no longer that guy that you leave alone and watch as he holds the opponent's best player to a 6-of-22 night. A step or two has been lost. But he can still be a force. Ask Kevin Durant, who entered the playoffs as the league's leading scorer but shot just 35 percent against the Lakers and Artest in the first round. And I'm thinking 70 percent of the 2004 Artest is a big upgrade over Vladimir Radmanovic, who guarded (or more accurately failed to guard) Pierce in 2008. You know how Celtics fans have played the "This is why Rasheed is here" card over and over again this postseason? Guys like Pierce, Durant and Carmelo Anthony are why the Lakers decided to deal with all the baggage Artest brings to the table. This series is a potential "This is why he's here" spot for Ronnie.
But Pierce is simply a much better all-around player than Artest. Look at the two so far in this postseason:
Pierce: 19.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 43.7 percent shooting
Artest: 11.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 41.2 percent shooting
Ol' Ronnie is going to make him work, but Pierce will find a way to get 18-20 points a game in this series. Unlike Durant, Pierce will not shy away from the physicality of Artest. Look for Pierce to be aggressive from the start on Thursday. I'd be stunned if Artest wasn't in foul trouble throughout the series. I also wouldn't be stunned if he married Dyan Cannon before Game 2, took a swing at Mike Breen at some point during the series or joined the Tea Party movement and endorsed Rand Paul for the Senate seat in Kentucky. Anything is in play with Artest. He's the anti-Ray Allen.
Center: Kendrick Perkins vs. Andrew Bynum
What's your problem, O'Hare?
Last practice and this a--hole thinks it's the Super Bowl.
You just summed up your entire sorry career here ... in one sentence!
If you had a tenth of Ruettiger's heart you'd have made All-American.
-- Not sure, but I think it was Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde
Isn't that Perkins and Bynum? If you could give a center the heart of Perkins and the skill of Bynum you'd get something between Moses Malone and, well, actually Moses Malone is good enough, right?
I hate to play the heart card, but something is missing with Bynum. There are too many long spurts where he just fades out. To Lakers fans he's J.D. Drew. They look past the numbers and legitimate injuries and have slapped him with the "soft" tag. There is no reason this position should even be a debate. I mean, we like Perkins and all, but Bynum averaged a 15-8 while playing just 30 minutes per game this season. Perkins had at least 15 points and eight rebounds in a whopping six games this season.
But nothing like a couple of bum knees and lack of desire to even the playing field, huh? It's the basketball equivalent of bad weather in football. Bynum had fluid drained from his knee on Monday but reported no improvement on Wednesday. So it's hard to imagine that this pattern will not continue in the finals:
Bynum minutes per game:
Regular season: 30.4
First round (Oklahoma City): 29.7
Second round (Utah): 24.8
Conference finals (Phoenix): 18.2
But it could be Perkins that misses time in the series. One more technical foul and he's suspended for a game. Doc Rivers said earlier in the week that he expects that this will happen, and criticized the NBA for counting double technicals the same as individual technicals.
"I don't think you should be suspended for double technicals," Doc said. "Obviously, flagrants should absolutely. If you get seven flagrants, if you cuss the refs out seven times, then maybe. But double technicals, no. Because when two guys get tangled up, they never know who started it so they just call it on both."
I get the point, I really do. But you know what? There are a lot of players in the NBA that have, over the years, managed to make it to the finals with less than six technical fouls. I'm not saying Perkins (who led the NBA with 15 T's in the regular season) should turn into Lady Byng, but there has to be some middle ground. And Doc, who has done a career coaching job this season (more on that later) has to take a hit if Perkins actually picks up technical No. 7 sometime this series. It shows a lack of control over his team. It's fine during the regular season, I guess, but imagine if the Celtics are down 2-1 and Perkins is out for Game 4 because he had to argue with a ref over some call that will never be changed?
Bynum played well vs. the Celtics this season (16-11 in two games) and could be a factor even in limited minutes during the finals. Perkins will give the Celtics what he always gives them, somewhere around a 10-8 with the usual tough defense. Oh, and probably a technical foul.
Power Forward: Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol
If Kevin Garnett plays like he did in the Eastern Conference finals and Pau Gasol plays like he did in the Western Conference finals the Lakers are going to win the series. The Celtics don't need a push to win, but they can't have Gasol putting up 22-10 while Garnett shoots 35 percent from the field.
A major angle the past couple of days has been the idea that Gasol is now tougher than he was in 2008. I'm not sure how we know this (is Phoenix a test?), but I suppose it could be true. We sure will know after the next couple of weeks. Give Garnett credit: He outplayed Antwan Jamison and Rashard Lewis in the last two series. Here's a real challenge. I don't expect that he'll outplay Gasol in the finals, but it's imperative that he keeps it close.
The only true game-changer on either bench is Lamar Odom, who averaged a 14-12 in the Phoenix series. But if we were putting together a draft of both benches, I think I'd take the three core Celtics reserves (Glen Davis, Rasheed Wallace and Tony Allen) before I'd consider another Lakers bench guy (Jordan Farmar). Depth vs. Odom is a toughie, but I have to think that it's more likely that Odom wins a game in this series than the Davis-Wallace-Allen trio. Plus, he's Bruce Jenner's son-in-law, which is always a tiebreaker.
Coaching: Doc Rivers vs. Phil Jackson
If I had asked any Celtics fan before Game 1 of the 2008 NBA finals if he or she would want to swap head coaches, I'm pretty sure that would have been a fast "yes." And that's how it should have been -- Jackson had nine rings, and we still were on the fence when it came to Doc (the "Fire Doc" stuff was in full bloom at the start of the 2008 playoffs -- after Game 6 vs. the Hawks. Two years later and I don't know a Celtics fan that would want Jackson over Rivers for this team. And I'm sure the same goes for Lakers fans and Big Chief Triangle. History will (correctly) rank Jackson much higher on the coaching mountain, but I don't see either guy as ahead of the other over the next seven games.
First, the Celtics need to split the opening two games. The 2-3-2 format is a killer for the road team. Hard to believe that the Lakers are going to lose three games in a row at any point in this series. If you buy into that, then the Celtics need to leave LA 1-1 at the worst to avoid being down 3-2 after the three games at the Garden. Teams in the NBA do not win a Game 6 AND Game 7 on the road. And as good as the Celtics are on the road, they wouldn't be able to pull that off.
But they'll have to win a Game 7 in LA for title No. 18. I think this series goes the distance. A split in LA, the Celtics win two-of-three at the Garden and the Lakers bounce back to win Game 6. And Game 7?
I think Game 7 is about defense and toughness. It's about veteran players who aren't afraid of the moment. It's about guys that have done it before.
And it will end as every Game 7 between the two franchises has ended.
Celtics 92, Lakers 90.
Series MVP: Ray Allen